“As I walk through this wicked world searching for light in the darkness of insanity. I ask myself, is all hope lost? Is there only pain and hatred and misery? Each time I feel like this inside there’s one thing I wanna know… what’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?” – Elvis Costello “Peace Love and Understanding”
What is meaning? Well, it’s a pretty complicated question that would take years, decades, or centuries to answer. And in fact, humanitarians, philosophers, scientists, scholars alike have tried and to be honest…I don’t know that we have an all-encompassing definition. However, in the world of positive psychology, meaning is characterized as “a connection of the self to something larger and the idea that what you do in that context matters.” Many of us want to feel connected to something bigger in this world, but is that desire more than a want, do we need this connection in our life to achieve well-being?
When we understand where we find meaning in our lives, we learn a little more about ourselves. This self-understanding is essential for many reasons. It may provide clarity into who we are and how we make decisions. Plus, science shows that the more meaning you have in your life, the higher your well-being. And here’s the thing…the ability to find meaning is an area we can cultivate!
Music and lyrics have always helped me make sense of my life. Through songs (and songwriting) I’ve been able to find the words to express what I was feeling, connecting to something more. Have you ever heard a lyric that completely describes what you were feeling? It seems as though somebody out there has felt the same thing, and we are not alone in this complicated story of being human! Music is all around us, so if we so choose we can mindfully engage with it to help connect to meaning in our lives.
Let’s do a quick review… meaning, in this case, has two parts 1) the idea we are connected to something bigger and 2) what we do in that context matters. Far be it for me to decide what that connection and context are for you, but this playlist helps me find meaning, and you’re welcome to connect with it if you’d like! To understand my “meaning” reasoning…here are five featured songs from the playlist and my reflection behind them.
Song: I am Light – India Arie
“I'm not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that caused me pain
I am not the pieces of the dream I left behind
I am light, I am light
I am not the color of my eyes
I am not the skin on the outside
I am not my age, I am not my race, my soul inside is all light”
Reflection: I love the entire album this song lives on, SongVersation. If you haven’t checked it out, it is worth listening to in its entirety. This song is one I’ve used to bring me back to center when I feel disconnected from myself and the world. It’s easy for me to feel overwhelmed with should’s, could’s, and would’s. I find comfort in the music and lyrics of this song. The music brings me into a peaceful trance, and the words speak to my soul. They remind me that no external factors (societies doing or self-inflicted) can change the fact that I have the possibility to be all the things that I associate with “light”; good, kind, compassionate and, maybe most important, that I have the opportunity to forgive myself and others." “I’m not the mistakes that I have made or any of the things that caused me pain. I am not the pieces of the dream I left behind…I am light.”
Song: Life Uncommon- Jewel
"I've heard your anguish
I've heard your hearts cry out
We are tired, we are weary
But we aren't worn out
Set down your chains
Until only faith remains
Set down your chains
And lend your voices only
To sounds of freedom
No longer lend your strength
To that which you wish
To be free from
Fill your lives
With love and bravery
And we shall lead
A life uncommon"
Reflection: So we have two parts to meanings definition 1) that we are connected to something bigger and 2) what we do in that context matters. The second half of meanings definition is why “Life Uncommon” made it onto my playlist. This line in particular sums it up for me, “lend your voices only to sounds of freedom, no longer lend your strengths to that which you wish to be free from.” It’s clear from my obsession with lyrics that I think words matter… and where we lend our voices (to things you don’t like or to the things you support) well, I think that matters too. In today’s political climate it seems that we are more engaged and more willing to use our voices on behalf of others and ourselves… and as discouraging as it can feel to have so much to do I find strength in the lyric “we are tired, we are weary, but we aren’t worn out.” It’s not easy to continue to choose to lend your voice to that which matters versus the noise of why we will never matter…but it’s important to try. Maybe that’s why this song is called “Life Uncommon.” Have you noticed a difference when you talk about the causes you care about versus bash the ones you hate?
Song: Back to the Earth - Jason Mraz
“Whenever my head starts to hurt
Before it goes from bad to feeling worse
I turn off my phone
I get down low
And put my hands in the dirt
I try to stop the world from moving so fast
Try to get a grip on where I'm at
And simplify this dizzy life
And put my feet in the grass
I'm going back to the earth.”
Reflection: It would be easy to say that connection to “something bigger than ourselves” is in speaking about to religion or spirituality specifically. That being said the connection to the earth…this big ole’ planet that we share… well, that’s pretty huge. I often feel overwhelmed when I put my toes in the ocean, knowing that the very water my toes are touching, the little pieces of sand that were once shells could have touched the toes of somebody on the opposite side of the planet. I think the second part of the definition of meaning “and what we do in that context matters” is so easily applied to the earth. The choices we make about trash, emissions, policies we support, how we interact with our food and the plants around us…choices we make every day matter in this big world. So, yeah, this song goes on meaning for me. Everyday choices need everyday reminders, and I love that music can do that!
Song: Exactly - Amy Steinberg
“if you look at me close enough, you see you
it's only what you perceive how you believe the space between
you and me
that creates reality
so when I sing you can feel it
when I cry you can heal it
when I speak words you can be the words i speak by singing with me
peace love free
peace love free
peace love free
and when I am alone and full of fear
I just remember the rising sun always appears
everyday miracles that I see
well they take me back to exactly where I need to be”
Reflection: Oh my gosh the spoken word in the middle of this song gets me empowered every time! “If you look at me just right, you’ll see you!” I love this song in relationship to meaning because it reminds me that no matter how I try to resist, encourage, or manipulate circumstances everything is connected just as it should be. It is a pretty easy concept… if you’re good at surrendering…which, I am not. But hey, it’s a practice, and this song is a beautifully eloquent reminder of that!
Song: Floodplain - Sara Groves
“Some hearts are built on a floodplain
Keeping one eye on the sky for rain
You work for the ground that gets washed away
When you live closer
Closer to the life and the ebb and flow
Closer to the edge of I don’t know
Closer to that’s the way it goes
Some hearts are built on a floodplain”
Reflection: It’s easy to talk about re-connecting when all you need is a reminder. Example: “Hey, you’re connected to something more!” “Oh yeah! Thanks, I forget that sometimes!” But the truth is, there are times in life where depression is real and painful, and disconnection is the only word that comes to mind. It wouldn’t be honest of my experience with meaning not to include songs that speak to those moments. Sara Groves has explained her experience with depression and anxiety behind this song so beautifully in relationship to the floodplains on the Mississippi River “Is it positive thinking that gets you up the hill or is there some sort of success here…(on the floodplain) It wasn’t that I was thinking about the wrong things and that’s why I was troubled…. But some people, their hearts are built on the floodplain… it might flood once or twice a year but it’s so green and you’re right at the edge of the river, adventure, life, and beauty.” I think about this idea a lot, especially from studying positive psychology. I will speak a lot more about positive and negative and what that relationship looks like and could mean. But for now, I’ll just say that it’s a balance, and it’s an important one. This song helps me have self-compassion when maybe my thoughts and the absence of meaning feel too heavy. “Some hearts are built on the floodplain.”
Here is the rest of my meaning and music playlist on Spotify.
Can you think of a song that has helped you connect to or understand meaning in your life? I’d love to hear the songs or specific lyric in the comments below! If you’d like some support in creating your own well-being playlist I’ve got something to help with that here!
Tricia Fox is a singer songwriter, thought leader on lyrics and wellbeing, and master of applied positive psychology from the university of Pennsylvania. Join the conversation on lyrics and well-being and to stay up to date on Tricia's music.